In conversation with Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam - Founders of the Dharamshala International Film Festival

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on October 01, 2014

Started in 2012, the Dharamshala International Film Festival has slowly evolved into a much awaited and appreciated film festival.

We recently interviewed Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, the founders of DIFF, where they spoke about their objective behind organising DIFF, the curating process involved and their future plans for DIFF amongst a host of other topics.

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

What is your objective and vision behind organizing a film festival like DIFF?

When we started DIFF in 2012, our objective was to bring high quality independent films, along with their filmmakers, to a town that has no cinema. Through exposure to the best of international indie films we hoped to foster understanding of other societies and ideas. The festival is also the only truly non-partisan cultural platform in the area that engages and involves Dharamshala’s diverse residents, which include different local Indians, a large Tibetan exile community and many expats.

This year, through our new initiative the DIFF Film Fellows programme, our aim is to promote and encourage filmmaking talent in the Indian Himalayan region by providing an opportunity to young and upcoming filmmakers from the area to attend DIFF and participate in the workshops and master classes.

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What is the idea behind having Dharamshala as the main venue for the festival?

Dharamshala, which has been our home for the last 18 years used to be a sleepy town. It is now a global destination, well-known as the exile home of the Dalai Lama and the capital of the Tibetan diaspora, and more recently as an international cricket venue. With its exciting mix of international cultures and a cosmopolitanism that belies its size, we have long believed that the town would be the ideal location for an international film festival. Most international cultural events in India are restricted to the big cities and we wanted to make Dharamshala more than just a regional tourist destination. We also wanted to have an event that truly belonged to the various communities of the region, giving them the opportunity to come together.

What kind of response has DIFF garnered in the last few years from the locals and the filmmakers?

The first two years of DIFF had an amazing, positive response from the locals, the national media and the filmmaking community. The number of people attending the festival has increased over the past two editions, and has included locals, film lovers from around the country and Indian and international filmmakers and visitors. There is usually very little meaningful interaction between the diverse residents of Dharamshala, and we have tried very hard to reach out to them all. One of our achievements has been bringing them all together to enjoy the festival.

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What kind of films do you intend to screen at the festival?

Our focus is on independent cinema, and we screen the best of indie films from around the world across feature, documentary, animation and short genres. This year, we have selected an eclectic mix of films that address a range of themes, from migrant labour and revolutions to equal access and education, from issues of gender to vampires! DIFF 2014 will also screen a very exciting package of award-winning films from the Middle East – three documentaries and one feature. We have a package of beautiful animation films curated by India’s leading animation filmmaker Gitanjali Rao. Marathi indie filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni has once again curated a selection of Indian short films to screen at DIFF.

What is the process involved in curating films for the festival?

From the beginning, we were clear that we did not want to restrict ourselves to particular genres, subjects or styles. We wanted simply to provide a panorama of the best of independent cinema from around the world, films that we enjoyed watching ourselves and felt important to share with our audiences. This approach gives us immense freedom in our selection of films.

We usually start with films that we have seen ourselves at different festivals and events and then solicit suggestions from a wide network of filmmaker friends, festival programmers, sales agents and distributors. We then research the various titles that are recommended and finally single out films that we feel are worth watching. We then cut down from our very long list of “must show” films to the 26 odd documentaries and features that we are actually able to programme. This is an enjoyable process but also exceptionally frustrating as there are so many good films being made! Having friends like Umesh Kulkarni and Gitanjali Rao come in as guest programmers for specific sidebars like Indian shorts and animation films takes a huge load off our back.

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What are your future plans for the festival?

We hope to continue bringing the best of independent cinema to the mountains through the Dharamshala International Film Festival. We are now trying to make this festival sustainable in terms of funding, as that has been a big challenge for us. In this regard, we are always on the lookout for sponsors, corporate or otherwise, who share our goal and vision and want to support the festival. We will build on the hallmarks that have given the festival its reputation as a fun, quirky and cutting edge event in the Himalayas – an intimate and carefully curated festival that will attract film lovers from everywhere to our small town. Our hope is that we will continue to draw award-winning filmmakers from India and around the world, and that DIFF becomes a landmark event in the Himachal region and in the world film festival calendar.

In your opinion what role does a film festival like DIFF play in developing Independent Cinema?

Independent films often have very small audiences, and festivals like ours increase their reach. We believe that festivals encourage more people to watch indie cinema, which otherwise remains on the fringe. It helps to refute commonly held myths about independent cinema being ‘too serious’ and ‘inaccessible’. The incredible explosion of independent films in India in the last few years means that there is more need than ever before to have platforms to showcase these films. Festivals like ours provide that space. Also, crucially, it is in festivals like ours that these smaller films have a chance to be noticed by critics and the industry and maybe have the opportunity of gaining wider exposure.

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What role do festivals like DIFF play in promoting cinema and film making in the region in which it is hosted?

What festivals like DIFF do is to present films that local audiences would otherwise never have access to. Festivals do not just screen films, but also bring filmmakers to introduce their films and participate in Q&A sessions with the audience. DIFF hosts workshops and master-classes with filmmakers and special guests that provide incredible opportunities for learning and interaction. All of this takes places in the thrilling and magical atmosphere of the festival. Special initiatives like the DIFF Film Fellows programme also encourage local filmmaking talent by giving young talent the opportunity to participate and learn from the best.

Which are the films you are particularly happy about having screened at DIFF in the last few years?

That’s a tough one to answer as every film we have screened at DIFF had a special resonance for us, for one reason or another, and was included after much deliberation and thought. It wouldn’t be fair on our part to single any films out!


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